Post-Exotic Novels, Nȯvelles, and Novelists: Part One
The post-exotic novel offers lessons in attacking the strictures of official literature
This essay was translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Using the word novel in this reflection calls for some preliminary discussion. At the very least if post-exotic authors are invited to contribute to it, to this reflection. What authors? Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger, Elli Kronauer, Antoine Volodine, for example. In the works listed as novels that we have authored and published under various names, thereby carrying the semi-anonymous words of post-exoticism, affirming its polyphonic nature, numerous forms have been introduced: Shaggås, Nȯvelles, In the original French, Volodine refers to romånces, which bear some relationship to romans (novels). To parallel this in English, I’ve translated the word as nȯvelles, and the title of this piece from Romans, romånces et romanciers post-exotiques to Post-Exotic Novels, Nȯvelles, and Novelists.narracts, murmuracts, lesson, incantexts, cantopéra, byliny, haïkus, recitacts, fairies, collages, rantings, theatrical monologues. Specific books have brought these forms to light while substituting for the word novel a less broad word: View over the Boneyard, nȯvelle; Minor Angels, narracts; We Monks and Soldiers, incantextsIn French, this is entrevoûtes, a word that harkens to voûte, vault, and envoûter, to enchant. Each of Volodine’s translators has handled this word in a different way: Jordan Stump has used “archodes,” Brian Evenson has said “intravaults,” and J.T. Mahany has written “interjoists.” Accordingly, I’ve coined the translation “incantext.”; Grasses and Golems, Shaggås ; Ilya Muromets and Nightingale the Bandit, byliny. And so on. In all these cases, this deviation from the norm is justified both by the content as well as the form of the work. View over the Boneyard, to take the first post-exotic work that thoroughly and unmistakably stakes its claim to an atypical genre, is composed of two exactly equal parts with the same number of words: a woman’s voice in monologue, followed by seven narracts; then the voice of her lover in monologue, itself also followed by seven narracts. It’s a musical and poetic object. In a way, it reproduces the two wings of a bird mysteriously united by love. It doesn’t follow any of the structural traditions established in the official novelistic world but, on the contrary, carves out a divergent tradition, which we can better understand by referring to the collective work Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. That said, even if this object seems to have cleanly broken with the novel genre, its position is far more ambiguous and, ultimately, the break isn’t complete: on the one hand, the author declares within the book that “The nȯvelle belongs to the family of novelistic forms,” and on the other hand, more objectively, View over the Boneyard is nothing but a love story, retelling the complex and tormented tale of an inseparable couple, sketching images of their shared dreams and their tragic reunions deep within a nightmare world.
Writing a novel, then, isn’t the expression we should use to sum up the intention preceding a spokesperson’s or post-exotic author’s work. Because it’s more, for him, composing a book that brings together several writing processes—quasi-novelistic, para-novelistic, poetic, sometimes theatrical, specifically post-exotic—with the goal of publicly producing a work that can be read like a novel, which is to say continuously, with a unifying thread, images, characters, and voices that structure and approach a story. Without theorizing here, the goal of every post-exotic author is certainly to give the public a way into, and certainly a stay within the novelistic domains barely or not yet explored by official literature. One concern of these authors is to diminish as much as possible the discomfort their readers might encounter as they enter unknown lands. The spokespeople, our spokespeople, who bring together the often disparate components of our writing community’s multiple voices, try to emphasize in this way the novelistic dynamic. With these fragments, these images in narracts, these Shaggås, these haikus, these rantings, these dream-tales, they create works that resemble novels, they make novels. For them, the idea of the novel is associated with the impressions they have made of those who will receive their stories: prisoners, at first, attentive and infrequent listeners, within these walls; then, second, a large public of bookstore readers, outside these walls. Sympathizing or not, these readers demand something particular of the book they’ve gotten hold of: specifically, I think they’re preparing for a dive. They hope to immerse themselves, beyond their world, within another world, and for that immersion to be enjoyable—or even just possible—and they need friends and travel companions to guide them in their crossings, characters. They’re waiting for a dialogue, both conscious and not, between their memories and those which propel the book, between their memories and our own. They hope that a distinct narrative thread will ensure the narrative’s continuity. Whether this continuity obeys a linear or oscillating or circular sequence doesn’t matter: in just about every post-exotic work, this continuity begins on the first page and goes straight to the last. Above all, post-exotic authors never go into creating things that can’t be experienced. Gratuitous literary experiences have always bored them as readers. Which is why they care that their books’ contents amount to the ingredients of novelistic cohesion, and why they pay attention to images, stories, dramatic arcs, and this forward march to the end. Ultimately, all post-exotic authors are attached to the form commonly known as the novel. Since time immemorial they have harbored affections for this form and, even if they knowingly introduce variants, if they modify its architecture, they genuinely believe that they are enriching it rather than pushing it around, disfiguring it, or betraying it.
It’s true that for some time we felt some embarrassment in saying that we were writing novels. We were just starting to take part in the publishing world, we had just one spokesperson (Volodine), and, not having yet made our mark on the publishing world, we were dismayed by the overly close proximity we had to what we might in retrospect call official literature. Without giving up our soul, because we had to keep the contents of our books separate, we felt like were making a somewhat painful concession by accepting the editors’ suggestion to impose that word, which we had to agree to. When we were asked, we said that we preferred to call what we wrote “books.” More than ten years had to pass before the questions of genre could be cleared up, whether it had to do with literary genre (we belong neither to science-fiction literature nor to a dispassionate avant-garde nor to minimalism) or the appropriate category for shelving our texts in bookstores. In that sense, the work Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven was a fundamental step. Not foundational, because post-exoticism’s basis had already been solidly established, but illuminating.
We have come to understand that our idea of the novel was liberated from these generic constraints, which for that matter were rather relative since that label comprises so many towering classical models with wildly differing structures, such as Don Quixote, Dangerous Liaisons, The Brothers Karamazov, Moby-Dick, Manhattan Transfer, The Dream of the Red Chamber (a list that is, of course, dreadfully arbitrary and incomplete), as well as the various more contemporary works of official literature that have flourished, often happily, in the last fifty years, which have explored numerous possibilities and which have, since the ’80s and all around the world, clearly gone in far more fascinating and rich directions than those that enabled the Nouveau Roman.
Now that this has been established, it will be easier to answer the questions you’re asking to frame your guests’ reflections. I’ll go back to the first one: “Writing a novel—is that form imposed on you or is it a decision made for each book? Or once for them all?” And clearly, if we look back at what has been declared above, we can’t imagine, as a public expression of post-exoticism, a book that can’t be classified as a novel. For us, however, it’s a question of playing with the wonderfully varied palette of novelistic forms. What might be imposed upon us would be, when we already have images of a world to visit, with characters and voices that come together to speak, shout, and murmur a story, what might be imposed upon us would be a specific post-exotic structure. For example, we know well in advance that a collection of Shaggås, incantexts, or narracts would be more appropriate for our story than a more linear structure. Or, on the contrary, we know that the fragments we have at hand would fit best in the flow of what we might then simply call a novel. The form is imposed on us as soon as we take into consideration the material we have at hand before starting the writing process—which is largely a process of assemblage. Lutz Bassmann is particularly at home in the structures that appear as incantexts. Manuela Draeger, in her novel Eleven Sooty Dreams, favored a pyramidal form in her story, with chapters mirroring each other on opposite sides of a central chapter, and that too was the case for Volodine’s Minor Angels. Then, in Grasses and Golems, she gave the public a similarly pyramidal work composed of three Shaggås. We are in a literature which seeks no common tradition nor common interest with official literature. But we’re still in a wholly novelistic context. The books mentioned here are unusual, but still novelistic. They’re filled by musical, poetic, or architectural constraints which are often unobtrusive and which, even in their specificity, do not distance them from the novelistic world, at least not enough for punctilious or sectarian academics to dream of refusing them a place. They stir up passions and images, which is how they are novels. They indissolubly interweave fiction and reality, which is how they are novels. They seek, inside and outside prisons, partners in dreams and dreaming, which is how they are novels. And they will stay this way, their authors will pursue in this way their progress in the new twenty-first century, in friendly harmony with their sympathizers, standing alongside and often ignoring official literature, without going to the trouble of following whatever trend there may be, without worrying about whether or not they’re respecting sophisticated narrative theories, ideological propriety, rules set by the academy or the marketplace for best sellers. So they will go on and on existing, not necessarily in a closed circuit, not necessarily bound to confidentiality, but indifferent to classifications, currents, and explanations.
In order to clarify several points about the status of the novel’s author, in order to fully flesh out several aspects of our reflection, perhaps first the problem of the relationship between our authors and our readers, and second the problem of forms and their raison d’être in the contemporary publishing world, I’ll allow myself to insert a lesson here that originally appeared in the electronic review FIXXION. Upon further thought, it’s a text that, for us, is as important as Lutz Bassmann’s Eleventh Lesson. Thirteen years after that lesson, in the relatively long history of post-exoticism, this text is a new evaluation and outlook. I won’t comment on the complete absence of comments upon its publication. We simply want to take the opportunity here to shine a spotlight on our communal, egalitarian, and fraternal mode. To explain once more how post-exotic literature stands apart from official literature. And not just to repeat our collective responsibility in all our imprisoned comrades’ battles, both literary and non-, but also to recall all those who built, within prisons and outside, our novelistic happiness.
Summary for others
as well as for ourselves
and our kind or apparent kind
• The sympathizers have very generously offered to let us speak. We thank them and, without any further ado, will now talk. I would simply like to start by dispelling a misunderstanding and declare that we will talk while successively and indiscriminately using several people. Lutz Bassmann, for example, or Manuela Draeger and Elli Kronauer, and of course, whether anonymous or not, several other writer-fighters, and ultimately Antoine Volodine, who gives the impression of organizing and reigning over the full group of post-exotic voices, although that could hardly be less certain and his role as spokesperson is in any case less and less clear.
• So we will allow ourselves to speak in front of the public, in front of our public, sometimes saying “I,” sometimes “We,” and sometimes this “We” will bring together both the authors and those who are listening to us and reading us.
• And already we’re hearing sniggering from those who call themselves or believe they can call themselves psychiatrists. For them, doubt is no longer permissible. That’s what they’ve been told. There’s schizophrenia in the air. In the very heart of our proclamations. Schizophrenia. The word is offered and then withdrawn. Everything indicates a symptomatic dispersal of “I.” A diagnosis is immediately sketched out coldly and peremptorily. Word-of-mouth does the rest. Let them, these armchair psychologists, laugh and gossip. Let them jeer and sneer, these lobotomizers in the making. It doesn’t bother us either way. We’ve seen worse.
• We’ve walked through fires, we’ve walked through the Bardo after death, we’ve learned to live through collapse and defeat, our dreams now are nothing but forgotten slag, those who haven’t betrayed are locked up in secret like horrible animals, most of our comrades are dead. We’ve seen worse.
• Although in my books I’ve often followed insane people through their most extreme trains of thought, I don’t believe I suffer from mental disturbances, at least no more than the vast majority of mortals, if that very broad expression can be used to refer to bipedal featherless mammals who haven’t yet gone to their grave. Some imprisoned men and women around us are suffering from serious issues, but among the post-exotic writers published recently, none have actually gone mad.
• Even supposing that we were fooling ourselves about our mental health, our intention isn’t to display symptoms of mental deviation for the sake of creating literary objects.
• Personally, I don’t care one bit about the issues that are sometimes imposed on my writing, connected spitefully to my thoughts about fiction. I certainly don’t care about the problems of dispersing “I” or clever heteronymic constructions that other people ascribe to me, occasionally scrutinizing them to denounce them as defective. I don’t care about remarks and diagnoses made by doctors, gossips, official apologists, or pedants. My aim is just to pursue to the farthest extent this polyphonic creative work that affirms the diverse voices of male and female authors within the literary framework that in and of itself is nothing special, because it simply retells stories all the while assuring me that my readers have picked them up to keep them—secretly or jealously or not—in their memory.
• Each of us feels exactly the same way as regards this subject.
•Nearly forty titles, four or five thousand pages total,At the time of this piece’s original publication, in January 2014, Volodine and his heteronyms had written about thirty-nine texts. At this point, with Volodine’s Radiant Terminus and Manuela Draeger’s Moi, les mammouths, the number is closer to forty-one. Volodine has declared that forty-nine post-exotic texts will be brought into the real world. more than twenty-five years of public existence, a literature solidly established outside these walls, dozens of long interviews, reference works, and they still ask us who we are and what the nature is of the texts we write.
• Among those who, on the outside, hold our books in their hands and not necessarily for pleasure, we note that, aside from the police, some have a press card. Journalists aren’t the first ones we have in mind when we imagine our sympathizing public, but some of them occasionally read our works and every so often they do their best to sum it all up. As surprising as it may seem, it actually was a member of this caste who gave rise to our nom de guerre, our generic designation. Twenty years ago, to get rid of a pesky journalist who didn’t have any real intention of writing an article about Lisbon, Last Edge, but who had invited him to declare which literary genre he belonged to, Volodine replied: “anarcho-fantastic post-exoticism.” The word post-exoticism stayed. We adopted it after his creation and even if it sometimes sounded inappropriate or pedantic, we defended it indefatigably and we will continue to defend it up to our death, and even after, until the very last one of us is extinguished.
• Post-exoticism’s friends, post-exoticism’s sympathizers, the readers who love post-exotic novels: their number is far from negligible. I’m not saying there are massive crowds. But they can be counted on the fingers of several hands. They are the ones we speak to when we aren’t busy talking to ourselves, like autistic people, within a hermetic space. To them all: friends, sympathizers, readers, fingers, hands, ghostly crowds, comrades.
• Several literary genres specific to post-exoticism have made their appearance in the publishing landscape without purporting to disrupt in the least the novelistic tradition they now and always align themselves with: nȯvelles, Shaggås, narracts, incantexts, lessons, rantings, cantoperas. Elli Kronauer himself repeatedly wrote byliny, which are epic songs drawn from old Russia. Lutz Bassmann published a collection of fictionalized haikus. These particular forms, whether original or transformed according to our ideological and poetic requirements, could not hope to replace preexisting forms, which we like and have no intention of fighting. But their various modes of expression, deeply oral and extraordinarily concise, don’t correspond to gratuitous formalist exercises invented by dilettantes in need of new distractions for their masters. These forms find their origins chiefly in the prison. Their emergence can be explained by penal techniques of collective collaboration, which gave rise to murmurs, fragments, whispers, chants, mumbles, verbiage, drones, and songs. What comes out of one mouth is repeated hundreds of times, worked over, modified, reinvented, and relayed.
• Complicity and anonymity unite us; no impatience will shake us. The men and women ponder over and refine the poems until they become stories. They keep an eye on the pieces’ high acoustic qualities and they fashion and reshape them until they become novelistic objects that bear some similarity to what circulates outside these walls, but which ultimately have no real connection to official literature.
• Novelistic objects. Which don’t really resemble what circulates outside these walls. This dissimilarity isn’t intended, it doesn’t imply hostility against official literature; it’s simply the result of the conditions in which their creation took place, the result of our distance from cultural centers, the result of our collective insanity, of our isolation, of our political dissent.
• To make such objects, don’t forget that we also have far more time than we could need to relive our own lives a thousand times in our head. We’ve been sentenced together to imprisonment until death. Around us, time stretches out. Within us, that time creates a melancholy favorable to pondering, creation detached from all material obligations, calm hallucinations, controlled stupor, endlessly repeated rustic gestures, heroes confusing life and death and even refusing both the idea of life and the idea of death.
• Refusing the idea of life and the idea of death, replacing them with the roars and silences of permanent revolution, the rising tide of the past, the falling tide of life, the slack tide of our guerilla tactics, the end of all difference between day and night.
• When we’re all gathered together, which is to say always, we never insist on a book or a dream’s parentage. Every nȯvelle, every dream, every war is everyone else’s nȯvelle, dream, war. In this vertigo we move around, constantly exchanging our hunches and our stories. In this sense, post-exotic products, whether they materialize outside these walls in the form of works or public declarations, don’t have any terribly significant authors. Its body is collective, its solos are played behind masks, its song is carried by anonymous voices.
• The song. It doesn’t displease us to imagine that our performance is somewhat shamanic or bardic, and in this word, “bardic,” we hear both the musical recitation of the bard and the nearness of the floating world of the Bardo.
• We are often asked why we are politically engaged, how we were locked up, incommunicado, behind grilles and barbed wire, like extremely dangerous and contagiously violent animals. Our explanation could be a long, tortuous one, but we will repeat, for simplicity’s sake, what the authorities who sentenced us said: we are extremely dangerous and contagiously violent animals.
• Needless to say, we will never repent.
• Most of us will happily lie with panache when confronted with incontestable truth. All of us will happily deny, vaguely or explicitly, the undeniable. This is something else, this attitude, that we are delighted to share as utterly exemplary to those listening to us.
• Once again the psychologists nod indulgently. They mentally consult their files on fabulists’ lies. They have no sense of humor and they have no way to understand the radical battle we are waging in our cells, our corridors, and our solitary confinement rooms. Denying vaguely or explicitly the undeniable. These hostile clinicians are not the ones we are speaking to.
• Our books are intended, above all, to be heard and loved by the community of prisoners that invented and slowly refined them. In these walls, our books echo of the detained men and women who already know them by heart. It’s a miracle that some volumes could have another life outside these walls.
• In our pondering and our books, we shamanically relive the misfortunes that have befallen humanity for centuries, and especially throughout the twentieth century, and we shamanically invent definitive retribution for those who have caused our misfortune. We are strong in dreaming, but we also knew, when we were outside these walls, to take advantage of our guns, our rifles, and our bombs.
• THOSE ALONE I LOVE, LISTEN! . . . DEVLÖR AMDI HAMAZGÜR, DEVLÖR AMDI HAMAZGÜR, BÖRRÖD !
• Within these walls we speak to each other, and also to the animalcules that visit our cells: the spider mites that appear in the summer when the stone is hot; the rare spiders that stay above our heads forever and then leave or dry up for lack of prey; or a few lost ants. Parasites aren’t very common in our hair and clothes. We instinctively monitor our cleanliness. The administration takes paper away from us at the least provocation, but they give us soap, and nearly all of us have a sink in our cell, and the right to two showers a week when collective punishment hasn’t been declared.
• We also have the right to sleep on the cement and to tell stories endlessly or to make lists of the dead; we also have the right to murmur day and night; we have the right to slowly lose reason or suddenly go crazy; we have the right to peel ourselves away, to have increasingly confused thoughts; we have the right to grow older, the right to go quiet, the right to have hallucinations and experience vertigo, the right to have nightmares, the right to die in our fear and our loneliness and our vomit. And these rights, these just rights, we do not fight for them to be accorded to us; we take them.
• Within our walls we keep on composing stories that tell what we have personally, carnally experienced, and what we have learned and experienced by proxy, and what others have lived through elsewhere, whether in our past or their own. We retell this day and night, introducing the actors, the witnesses, and the audience within our stories and without any order.
• From cell to cell we talk in many languages, we resort to a translated and retranslated pidgin which our readers outside these walls could not possibly know about. We often claim that our books are written in translation. Let’s keep all that vague, approximate, haphazardly guessed-at. What matters isn’t understanding our manner of expression or reconstituting the linguistic paths that we follow to our poems. What matters is that bits of our cries, of our textual rantings, and our stories make their way outside, and consequently that the sympathizing public be forewarned and aware that, even in their lowest moments, the post-exotic community exists and persists.
• Our listeners: the male and female prisoners, the male and female missing, the male and female dead, who still hear us from the Bardo after death or by the magic of our stories in which they live forever, or at least for the duration of a book, post-exoticism’s sympathizers, the ill, the animals, the bookstore readers, the still-active commando group members, the wonderful passersby, the old communists.
• And also the shamans, the bards, and the bonzes.
• We’re not forgetting anybody or anything. We’re not forgetting that the watchmen are monitoring us, that the pedants and psychiatrists are taking notes, and of course that the police are recording us and listening to us, eager to learn the details of the crimes we’ve been accused of and which we’ve refused to confess, even when we were caught in the act, caught red-handed with the smoking gun.
• Our books are rich with their numerous voices, with their feelings, with their oneiric landmarks, with unclear historical contexts from which their hardy heroines and weak heroes emerge. They are weighed down by the clearly unsaid and the secretly unsaid. They describe unlikely paths and arrivals. Possibly they studied everything to keep from summarizing everything in a few simple sentences. What is it all about? the critic of official literature asks in a high, worried voice, because, on the back cover, there is too little information or not enough for his purposes. All the same, if he takes the time to think, he’ll see that it’s about typical things: a person’s fate, the brutality of society and history, and a weakness striking the human species like a plague: the only direction for it to go is the worst.
• Neither revolutions nor dreams turn out well. It’s about that, too; about nostalgia overwhelmed by bolshevism which hasn’t fallen apart; about passionate, violently unforgettable and never-forgotten daydreams; about love in a vacuum; about horizons in a vacuum; always within reach, always ruined.
This is the first of two parts, the second of which is available here. The piece was first published on remue.net as part of a dossier titled “Écrire un roman aujourd’hui” on January 11, 2014, and translated into English on January 11, 2015.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature Magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in Tin House, Best European Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The White Review. He is currently translating Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus for Open Letter Books